Cervical cancer is a gynaecological cancer which affects the cells at the cervix (opening to the uterus). It is the third most common gynaecological cancer in Australia after uterine cancer and ovarian cancer. As there are two types of cell in this area of the body, there are two types of cancer which can develop. The most common type is squamous cell carcinoma which accounts for about 80% of cervical cancers. Adenocarcinoma is less common and affects the glandular cells in the cervix. The main risk factor for development of cervical cancer is exposure to human papilloma virus (HPV), which is like the common cold of the genital tract. Most women are exposed to HPV during their reproductive years and while the majority of the time HPV will be cleared naturally, in some cases it is persistent and causes the changes that lead to cervical cancer. Smoking is also a risk factor for the development of cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is not a hereditary cancer that can be passed down from relatives.
Regular screening for pre-cancerous changes of the cervix or Pap smears have meant that the incidence of cervical cancer has decreased. Changes are detected and treated before they have the opportunity to develop into a cancer. Pap smears are performed on all women 18-70 years of age who have had sexual intercourse and are recommended every two years. International evidence shows that HPV is the virus that causes 99% of cervical cancers, so in 2015 the Federal Minister for Health announced that a new 5-yearly HPV test for cervical cancer will replace the 2-yearly Pap test from 1 May 2017. The full guidelines can be accessed here.
Some of the symptoms of cervical cancer include vaginal bleeding in between your periods or after sexual intercourse, abnormal vaginal discharge, bleeding after menopause as well as more general symptoms like weight loss, extreme tiredness and back pain. In order to diagnose the cancer a Pap smear is usually performed and a colposcopy may also be recommended. This test is where a gynaecologist has a close look at the cervix with a microscope with a number of different solutions applied. A biopsy is usually taken if any areas appear suspicious.
Treatment of cervical cancer depends on the stage of the disease. Early cancers can be treated with surgery, which can sometimes involve a cone biopsy (removing some of the cervix), a trachelectomy (removing all of the cervix) or a hysterectomy (removing the cervix and the uterus). More widespread disease is often treated with radiation and chemotherapy.
Cervical cancer has a good prognosis overall, with the five-year survival rate 72%. With the combination of regular Pap smears and check-ups, as well as the HPV vaccination given to all children (both girls and boys) at around the age of 12, the overall numbers of cervical cancers will decrease and hopefully the survival rates will continue to increase.
So if it’s been a while since you last had your Pap smear, or you have any irregularities with bleeding, see your doctor or Gynaecologist sooner rather than later – it may just prevent a cancer!
For more information about National Cervical Cancer Awareness Week or for further information about cervical cancer, visit the Australian Cervical Cancer Foundation website.
For more information about the HPV Vaccine, visit http://www.hpvvaccine.org.au/.